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On Sextarianism

Session IV-02, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 11:00 am

RoundTable Description
What are the relationships between law, archives, violence and sovereignty? How and why has secularism emerged as a way of being in the world, as an identity formation? How is state power amplified at the site of sexual difference? What are some of the implications of rethinking sectarianism through a focus on law and bureaucracy, as an embodied and quotidian category? If sectarian difference and sexual difference cannot be separated practically, how are they separated analytically? This roundtable will address sextarianism as a nexus to explore state power and how sex, sexuality, and sect shape and are shaped by law, secularism, and sovereignty. Drawing on court archives, public records, and ethnographies, the panelists will explore how political difference is entangled with religious, secular, and sexual difference. We explore state power as inevitably contingent, like the practices of everyday life. The panelists are drawn from four fields: Middle Eastern Studies; Anthropology, History, and Gender Studies. They will each discuss archival research in state institutions, positionality and ethnography, state power and the temporality of failure, religious conversion, sectarianism, and secularism, and securitization and sexuality.
  • The category of “sect” is a patriarchal inheritance, a fact that has received scant analytic and political attention in conversations about sectarianism or political confessionalism.3 In the eyes of the state, what makes someone Muslim as opposed to Christian, or Sunni rather than Shiʿi, is not religious conviction, communal cohesion, political persuasion, or sectarian investment—instead what matters is what sect your fa- ther was. In Lebanon and in other states that build and organize political power through sectarian governmental categories, sectarian difference is sexual difference: to be a legitimate, distinct, and measurable sect requires the legal infrastructures of personal status law and of census data regimes that entrench sexual difference. And yet, while so much academic work about Lebanon, and on the Middle East more broadly, focuses on sectarianism and political sectarianism, very few actually explain how “sect” is structurally reproduced. The hesitance to do so, this unseeing, may be in part because it would be impossible to do so without studying its relation to sex. This unseeing is active: It creates a universal political subject emptied of the conditions of their historical production, and it constructs men’s experiences of state power and of sectarianism as universal. How might reapproaching state power through a focus on sextarianism allow us to think more capaciously about sectarian political difference, by highlighting the ways in which sectarian difference is dependent on, emergent with, and articulated together with sexual difference and the regulation of heteronormative reproductive sexuality at the level of law and bureaucracy? What are some of the political and epistemological stakes of sextarianism? My presentation will underline work of bringing concepts from feminist theory, middle east studies, history and anthropology together, and how the intersections and impasses between these fields are formative of sextarianism.
  • The term “sextarianism” has global and transdisciplinary relevance and will circulate and become a powerfully useful concept. Sextarianism centers the functional operations and regime centrality of sexual difference in the analysis of how the state produces and manages populations. Sextarianism opens up new analytical and political languages for talking about “religion” in relation to sovereignty by demanding we think in radically new and more useful ways about the power of barriers erected between public and private, and of the forced marriage between property and intimacy. Sextarianism does not just assert the political nature of the personal but convincingly restructures understandings of the political sphere establishing a gendered notion of “religious” (and trans-confessional) sovereignty at its heart, identifying sex as the core vector for a biopolitics that centers religion (sectarianism in this case) as a foundational category of sovereignty. My presentation will focus on how sextarianism helps us reconsider state power, securitization, and sovereignty. Specifically, I will ask how sextarianism might help us understand the ascendancy of new “religious freedom” politics that dominates born-again Christian ascendance internationally, where “religious freedom” now means freedom from state secularism instead of freedom from state religion. I outline how sextarianism might help us reboot the analysis of modernity and governance, and suggest that it is grounded in and propels to prominence the epistemologies of Lebanon and the conceptual and political innovations of its women, social movements, trans and refugee subjects.
  • My comments will draw attention to “sectarianism” as an oversignified and oversaturated term in Middle East Studies and more broadly. Somehow, somewhere, someone is always talking, writing, or asking questions about sectarianism. How might attention to everyday life challenge the ways that sectarianism has been thought, deployed, and mobilized in knowledge production? What are the differences between approaches that seek to understand sectarianism as a continually reproduced structure or system and those that focus on separate sects or treat it as inevitable? How does “sextarianism” challenge understandings of sectarianism and help us better conceptualize its reproduction and persistence at multiple levels? When it comes to Lebanon, how do the intimacies and affects of sectarianism and anti-sectarianism, as well as a researcher’s positionality, shape research on sectarianism? What analytic and imaginative possibilities are enabled and foreclosed through these processes? Musing on these questions, I will engage with the theoretical and methodological contributions and implications of “sextarianism,” especially but not exclusively for anthropological and feminist studies of the region. In doing so, I will build on my own theorization of sectarianism as one of many categories of social difference that hold and discipline everyday meaning and practice in relation to mixed marriage, on the analytic burden of sectarianism for scholars of Lebanon and the region, on my efforts to complicate students’ understandings of sectarianism, and on the relationships between positionality, ethnographic, and archival research.